Do you compare yourself to other people? As a Christian, do you look at your Christian friends and think, “They’re much more godly than I am. They’re better at prayer. They’re more patient. They’re better evangelists than I am.”? Maybe you look at your non-Christian friends or family and think, “Their lives are so much simpler than mine” or “I wish I have what they have”.
In this episode of the CCL podcast, Susan An, Dean of Women at Moore College, helps us think through some of these issues in the light of Proverbs 31 and the godly woman it describes, so that we can learn to think correctly about ourselves.
This episode is particularly geared to Christian women, but contains lots of application for all of us.
Links referred to:
- Our 2024 events:
- Embrace AI and lose your soul? How to think about AI as a Christian with Akos Balogh (13 Mar)
- Casual sex or sacred sexuality? Our bodies and relationships under God with Chase Kuhn (Wed 22 May)
- Affluent and Christian? Material goods, the King and the kingdom with Michael Jensen (Wed 21 Aug)
- Who am I? The search for identity with Rory Shiner (Wed 23 Oct)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 23:55 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Peter Orr: Do you compare yourself to other people? As a Christian, do you look at your Christian friends and think, “They’re much more godly than I am. They’re better at prayer. They’re more patient. They’re better evangelists than I am.”? Maybe you look at your non-Christian friends or family and think, “Their lives are so much simpler than mine” or “I wish I have what they have”.
In today’s episode, Dean of Women at Moore College Susan An is going to help us think through some of these issues. She’s going to help us think—particularly in the light of Proverbs 31 and the picture of the godly woman or wife that Proverbs 31 presents—about how we can easily fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to other people, and how sometimes we can even distort the Bible in how we think about ourselves. Susan is going to help us think correctly about ourselves.
This episode is particularly geared to women, and is about how Christian women can and should think about themselves. But I think it’s going to be helpful and have lots of application for all of us—Christian men and Christian women. I hope you enjoy the episode.
PO: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Peter Orr, and on today’s episode, I’m joined by my friend and colleague, Susan An. Susan, it’s great to have you on the podcast! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself: who’s in your family and how did you become a Christian?
Susan An: Thank you so much, Peter! It’s really lovely to be here on the podcast. In my family, I have my parents; I have an older sister who’s married to Min, and she has two children; and I have a younger brother who’s also married and he has one child. I’m blessed with many young boys in my life to look after, pray for and be a part of their lives. They’re a great blessing to me. If you ever want to talk to me about my nephews, I can do that all day every day!
How I became a Christian: I was very fortunate to be born into a church-going family. My family went to church all their lives. I believe that my parents thought—and I thought too—that we were all Christians. But because these churches weren’t necessarily teaching us about the Bible, I was taught a lot of stories from the Bible growing up. But no one ever explained to me why I wasn’t allowed to believe that “Jack and the Beanstalk” happened, but had to believe that Moses parting the Red Sea happened. I was taught these series of stories from the Bible without being taught why.
Luckily in God’s providence, we ended up “accidentally” going to a Bible-teaching church when I was 12 years old. People showed me that the Bible was actually God’s written word, and explained to me that Jesus is the centre of the Bible. So through faithful ministry of people who taught me faithfully from the Bible, I was very lucky to become a Christian as a teenager: I was 14 at the time.
PO: Praise God! That’s wonderful.
The perfect woman
PO: We’re going to speak in this podcast episode about a Bible talk that you gave recently. The talk was entitled, “The perfect woman”. Why did you choose that as a topic? Why did you speak on it? Furthermore, do you think that this idea of perfection is something that women in particular struggle with?
SA: Yeah. The talk was originally given at a women’s event at the church that I was serving in at the time. In the lower North Shore, where I was serving, perfectionism was rife [Laughter]—as everybody in that area (and I don’t think it was just that area!) was very, very good at presenting the best version of themselves all the time. I saw how much that was adding as a burden to people. I saw that the Christian faith wasn’t necessarily helping the women either, because their Christian faith was just another thing that they had to get right and make look wonderful.
I wanted to speak into that, so I called the talk, “The perfect woman”. But when I did it recently here at Moore College, Jane Tooher said, “Why don’t we change it in a positive way?” We talked about it as “How God sees me”.
There was an implied question in that original title though: when I talked about this idea of a “perfect woman”, it was an easy way to get the women to think, “What do I think is perfect and what do I think about a perfect woman is?” That was a way to get them to think, “What do I think is important? What do I think is valued?” and then try and challenge that a little bit. So that’s why I did it that way.
PO: You started the talk thinking about or describing your idea of who the perfect woman was. Who was it, and what does that say about you?
SA: Absolutely! I said it was Tina Fey. [Laughter] That reveals something about me. She is a really, really hilariously funny woman who does lots of things. That’s something about me too. She’s an actress, she’s a writer, she’s a producer, she’s a mum, and I know you can’t see me, but she also dark hair and sometimes wears glasses like me. [Laughter] So that reveals something about what I think is important! [Laughter]
The Proverbs 31 woman
PO: Obviously you spent most of the talk not talking about Tina Fey, but opening up God’s word—in particular, Proverbs 31. We’re not going to go through the whole talk now, but can you just give us a snapshot of the picture Proverbs 31 paints of the ideal woman?
SA: Yes. I don’t think the passage itself actually describes her as the perfect woman, but when I read it, that’s what I thought of. She is just amazing: she’s a hard worker, she rises early and goes to bed late (vv. 15, 18), but while she’s doing that, she’s actually working for the entire household—not just for her family, but for the staff she employs as well (v. 27).
The other thing I was struck by was her mind: she’s really shrewd in her business dealings. In the passage, it talks about her buying wool and flax to make materials (v. 13), she’s buying fields (v. 16), and she’s making trade (v. 18). In the talk, I translated that into a more modern idea: “She manages the property and the shares portfolio for the household”. [Laughter]
Then she’s praised for her character: she’s really hospitable to people who are vulnerable and needy in her neighbourhood (v. 20); and she’s described as having strength and dignity, humour and wisdom (vv. 25-26). Her real inner beauty really shines out.
The final thing I noticed is that she’s admired both in the home and within the community, which I thought was a really impressive thing, because people at home usually see us at our worst, and even her family thinks she’s great.
Those are the four things I noticed: she’s hardworking, she’s got a brilliant mind, she’s got great inner beauty, and people admire her.
Living up to the Proverbs 31 woman
PO: It is a wonderful, encouraging picture. As a man, I read that and I learn from this example presented. The question or the problem that many women might have in reading that passage is, “How do I live up to this?” The passage, in some ways, is inspiring and encouraging, but at the same time, it can make us feel like “That’s a million miles away from who I am or what I am”.
SA: Yeah, that’s exactly right! When they read this passage, I think a lot of women, instead of being encouraged, feel a little bit overwhelmed and defeated. That’s certainly my reaction. That was the reaction when I said to the women, “I’m going to preach on this.” One of the ladies told me she didn’t want to come, because she didn’t want to feel worse about herself than she already was feeling. But she persevered and she came, and then she said she was really glad that she came, so I was very, very thankful for that.
I started off by putting Proverbs into context. If you know the Book of Proverbs well, you’ll know it’s full of very pithy sayings about the ideal life lived under God. It’s full of pretty drastic statements like “Those will be blessed if you are generous to the poor” (cf. Prov 14:21, 28:27). But we all know in our everyday lives that there are lots of people who are very generous, but who don’t necessarily lead blessed lives, even though they’re believers. So I told the ladies, “Proverbs is describing an ideal life, not really looking at the greys in life, but the blacks and the whites.”
I also pointed out that this poem is very stylised: it’s a Hebrew acrostic poem. I got the ladies to see that in context and not go, “There is this woman, and this is who I must be.”
PO: That’s helpful. We can read it, we can be encouraged and we can be challenged by it, but we mustn’t necessarily think that if we’re not living up to this ideal, somehow we’ve failed.
The world’s perfect woman
PO: Just changing track a little bit, that’s an example where we might look at a Bible passage and see the example—and in some ways, when we read, we see the character of the Lord Jesus and we think, “I’m so far short of that.” But sometimes we don’t compare ourselves with Jesus. We don’t compare ourselves with the biblical picture. Instead, we might compare ourselves to the world, or we might apply the world’s standards to ourselves. How do you think Christian women have absorbed the world’s view of what a woman is or what a woman should be?
SA: Yeah. We have ended up in this really, really crazy time when people don’t even have definitions for what a woman is anymore. Recently I’ve noticed viral memes of politicians who can’t answer that question.
I think what’s come of it is that Christian women look at this passage and know intuitively that God values such things as inner beauty, hard work and being honoured, and combine that with the world’s expectations of what perfect womanhood is.
I think there are many Christian women who are doing the impossible of chasing the godly and the worldly at the same time. I see lots of women who look at what the world says about what motherhood ought to be, what relationships ought to be, what careers ought to be, what their physical beauty ought to be, and what their age says about themselves, and they are constantly looking at what they lack, instead of what they already have. I know so many Christian women who are very, very generous with their time, but don’t feel like they earn enough or give enough to church. I know lots of Christian women who are so generous in looking after kids in their kids church, who are godmothers to their friends’ families, but then who beat themselves up because they don’t have their own children. I see a lot of Christian women who compare themselves with the world’s standards and what other people have around them, and are really hard on themselves and feel less than, because they’re trying to do the impossible of having it all—I mean, having it all doesn’t even work in the world—but having it all with the world and with God. I see how hard that is for the women around me.
Thriving Christian women
PO: How are Christian women supposed to survive this craziness? How do they not just survive, but thrive as the women God wants them to be?
SA: Yeah. I always answer that with an answer that probably isn’t new, but is perhaps something we need to lean into harder than we might already be doing. We need to know that we are God’s children—that we are God’s daughters. When we think about the standards of the world—about motherhood, about children, about relationships, age and wealth—all of those things can and do change within a lifetime. Defining ourselves by what we have or comparing ourselves with others isn’t good, because it fluctuates, and your self-worth and self-value changes along with those things. But when you’re a Christian person and you’ve given your life to Christ, your identity as a child of God doesn’t change.
I want to read Romans 8:14-17:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ … (NIV)
That was the message that I really wanted the women to take away—that they have an unchanging, unnegotiable identity as a daughter of Christ that is not changed by anything that the world has to throw at them, that they are daughters of God, and that that is the most important thing.
PO: As we take a break from today’s episode, I want to tell you about the events that are coming up in 2024. Our theme for 2024 is “Culture creep”—the way in which the culture can affect our thinking as Christians and as churches. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, telling the Roman Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2a ESV).
We have four events across 2024 that are aimed at helping us to do that—to not be conformed to the world—to resist culture creep—and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.
On 13 March, Akos Balogh will be talking to us about artificial intelligence and how we should think about that as Christian people. Artificial intelligence is a relatively new technology, and yet its quick and widespread use means that it is something that we need to be very clear in our thinking about as Christians.
On 22 May, Chase Kuhn will be speaking on the topic of “Casual sex or sacred sexuality?” Sex and sexuality obviously are a real way in which we can express our difference from the world as we live according to God’s word. But it is an area also where we are very susceptible to living like the world. Chase will be helping us to think through how we consider our bodies and our relationships under God.
On 21 August, Michael Jensen will be helping us to think through how we live as Christians in a very wealthy world. The title of his talk will be “Affluent and Christian?” and he’ll help us to think through how we should use our material goods in service of the King and the kingdom.
Finally, on 23 October, Rory Shiner will be helping us to think about our identity. The search for identity in different ways, the question of identity and who we are is such a powerful question that our world is asking. Again, it is very easy for us as Christians to follow the world’s lead, rather than have our thinking on this important topic shaped by God’s word.
That’s an overview of the events that are coming up in 2024. You’ll find more details on the CCL website and you’ll be able to register for the events. Hopefully we’ll see you at some or all the events.
Now we’ll return to our program.
Getting the truth into our hearts
PO: Susan, that’s really helpful. Those verses in Romans 8 are so powerful. Whether we’re a Christian man or a Christian woman in how we think about ourselves, do you have any practical advice about how we can get those truths into our hearts? We can read them, but so often they maybe don’t have the purchase in our lives, whereas just living in the world and being surrounded by advertising and different views of women might actually affect and have a pull on people. Any thoughts on that?
SA: Yeah. I absolutely think that things like social media are adding to our need for perfection. On Instagram, we can take a thousand pictures of ourselves, filter them, Photoshop them to death and upload them, and then all of us are looking at that and thinking, “Oh, I feel bad, because my life doesn’t look like that” or “My life doesn’t feel like that”. I think that’s adding to that.
I do think discernment and wisdom is needed for how we engage with with the world. I think knowing what kind of person you are helps: are you really impacted by that? I have a wise friend who, every time she feels overburdened by what she sees on social media, goes on a social media break. She might not go back on it for a month or two, and then she comes back when she feels ready and is in a much better place.
Another thing is being friends with people that you see as having the things you don’t have. When we see someone who’s a mum and you’re not, it’s easy to then go, “Their life must be really perfect. It must be wonderful.” But when you approach them and talk to them, you find out that their lives aren’t perfect because of motherhood. Maybe they woke up three times in the night because their baby wasn’t sleeping. Maybe their toilet training is not going well, and they might be sitting there envying you for not having children!
Having good friendships and people around us who are different from us challenges, helps and shapes our thinking about some of these things. Those things have been really, really helpful for me as well.
Women who are harsh on themselves
PO: One of the things that you touched on in the talk is the tendency you’ve noticed of some women—particularly Christian women—to be overly harsh on themselves. Do you want to say something about that?
SA: Yeah, absolutely. I know some women who are so kind and lovely, and say all these encouraging things to me and other people all the time, and then when I ask about how they feel about how they’re going, they say such harsh things to themselves.
Something I’ve learned to do to myself is think about the next unkind thing I think about myself and I would imagine saying it to another person. That would really surprise me, because I realised, “Huh: I’m saying things that I would never imagine saying to another person, because it is so mean, so cruel and so unkind. But I say that to me. So why do I deserve that treatment that I would never dream of giving to other people?” To women who are hard on themselves: the next time they want to say something really hard on themselves, that’s what I would challenge them to do.
I would also say, “Look at Jesus”. Jesus sets our value and worth, because Jesus looked at us and looked at us before the creation of the world, and said, “I want you to be my daughter. I want you to be in heaven with me for all of eternity.” So no matter what we think about ourselves, Jesus thinks that you’re spectacularly special—so special that he died on the cross for you. So why are you talking to yourself in a way that you wouldn’t imagine talking to others, or in a way that Jesus wouldn’t speak to you?
PO: That’s really helpful.
Thinking of oneself less
PO: In a related way, towards the end of your talk, you challenge the audience: you had this phrase, “Will you love yourselves more by thinking of yourselves less?” Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that?
SA: Yeah. As you were saying it back to me, Peter, I just realised it sounded like I was belittling the women, saying, “Minimise yourself!”, which is the opposite of what I was going for! I meant, “Think about yourself less frequently and with less importance”, because I think we can think a lot about ourselves and obsess about our own lives. It’s very easy to do.
But life isn’t about us. It’s actually about Jesus and what he’s done for us. What I meant was for us to think about the fact that we are forgiven, that we are God’s daughters, and that Jesus is the only perfect person who’s ever lived. He lived a perfect, sinless life. Through his death on the cross, he gave that perfection to us. When God looks at us, he thinks that we’re perfect because of Jesus. This perfection that we’re all trying so hard to achieve has already been achieved through him. So that’s why I was urging the ladies to think about ourselves less, but to think about Jesus more, because we have already got that perfection.
PO: That’s really helpful, Susan.
Gospel truths that transform us
PO: I’m thinking about Christian ideas—the gospel ideas of grace and forgiveness. There’s a real opportunity for us as Christian women and Christian men to really deeply have these gospel truths transform our lives, and then we can can share the hope that that gives us to other people.
SA: Yeah, absolutely! I think the reason why we have been impacted is because the world does actually say that it does mean something when you don’t have the things that the world wants you to have. It means something if you don’t have this career. It means something if you’re not as wealthy. It means something if you’re a certain age. It means something if you don’t have this amount of wealth.
But I think, as a Christian person, if you’ve really understood and grasped the perfection that we have in Jesus, and that we’re actually content and happy within it, it is very, very noticeable. People notice that. Non-Christian people will say, “Hang on: why are you so content and happy when none of the measures of the world are in you?” I think it gives you a real opportunity to speak into people’s lives who are pursuing these things, because there are people who are pursuing things in the world who are even more broken, because they don’t have Jesus, and who are looking for more. We have a real opportunity to speak into that and to tell them the difference we have and the difference Jesus makes in our lives.
PO: Susan, thank you very much. It’s been so helpful and it’s been great to have you on the podcast. Thank you very much for your insights.
SA: Thank you so much, Peter! Thank you for listening.
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Where noted, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.